Good sense and balance

Keeping balanced – it matters

Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there — I hope this day finds you in good form and in a positive frame of mind. And if it doesn’t, I hope you can find some relief and find a way to enjoy yourself at least a little bit today. Father’s Day doesn’t last forever, but tomorrow is another day.

I’m a bit under the weather today. I’ve been feeling pretty down on myself after the meltdown on Friday, and yesterday was pretty much of a bust, because I was so wiped out and tired from everything that’s been going on, lately. Plus, I completely spaced on getting my dad a Father’s Day card, and by the time I remembered it, it was too late to buy it and the post office was closed. I must admit I’m dreading calling him up. He loves to talk, and I’m feeling pretty wiped out. Not sure I’m up for a discussion. I’ll need a nap before I do that.

Today I need to just chill. Normally I chill on Saturdays, and I did that some. But it’s hard for me to relax when I am stressed, and I was definitely stressed. Tired. Fatigued. Wiped out. Done.

It’s a fine line I have to walk — between activity and rest. I got up this morning feeling like total crap. Had a half-assed exercise session, went through the motions of my morning routine, and helped my spouse, who is not feeling well today, either. Getting out of my head — that’s important. And when I think about it, the thing that gets me the most and pulls me down the most, is when I get stuck inside my head. It’s just not good. I need to get out, get engaged, get active… and I need to also balance out my activities so that when the time comes, I’m actually able to enjoy myself and be really engaged with people and activities.

Part of it, of course, is physical — it’s tough to stay fully engaged when you’re physically exhausted. But a lot of it is mental, too. Being able to put aside my poor-me attitude, feeling sorry for myself, wallowing in self-pity because things aren’t working out the way I want them to… Please. I have ongoing issues with feeling sorry for myself, feeling neglected and dismissed, and not standing up for myself. Part of me thinks that people should magically be able to tell what I need, when I need it — including my spouse. But they only have as much information as I give them, and I’ve been focused on NOT drawing attention to myself for so long, that how would anyone know that I really need something? How would anyone know that something is really important to me, unless I tell them?

Clearly, I need to make some changes in how I interact with people. I have been hiding out, basically, making it my mission to put others first and do for them what they need done. That can be very fulfilling and satisfying — to lose yourself in service to others you love, and to live not for yourself but for the greater good. But there comes a time when things like adequate sleep and a regular schedule become paramount, and then you have to tend to your own needs — and educate others about how best to interact with you.

I heard it said once that “We train other people how to treat us,” and the more I think about it, the more true it seems. Yes, we train others how to treat us, and since I have been training my spouse and my employers and my coworkers to not worry about what I need, in the course of my daily life, small wonder that my own wishes are the last thing they think about when they are coming up with their plans.

Yes, more work to do… And it can be quite tiring. On the bright side, though, these difficulties are actually signs that things are changing for the better in my life. Up until a couple of years ago, I was so oblivious to how poorly people treated me — and how I sought out the company of people who treated me likd sh*t — that I unconsciously ended up in one bad situation after another. The employers who treated me like I was disposable, were the ones I actually sought out. And the ones who treated me well, I avoided like the plague. My “best friends” usually laughed at me and made fun of me and talked down to me. And my favorite activities were ones that really wore me out and stressed me to the point of breaking, over and over again.

I was a real “stress junkie” — but I wasn’t just getting a fix. I was actually trying to wake myself up, to get my brain to kick into gear, because if I didn’t have that stress in my life, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t follow what was going on around me. It wasn’t a case of poor self-esteem that caused it — my poor self-esteem came from my need to be in rough, tough, abusive situations. And that need was purely neurological, not psychological, stemming from poor “tonic arousal” that was the result of too many traumatic brain injuries.

And the thing that stopped me from getting the kind of help I needed with my relationships, my work, my situations in life, was the confusion between cause and effect, and the true nature of my danger/risk-seeking activities and my craving for really sh*tty interpersonal relationships. It’s not about me seeking out people who treat me like crap because I feel badly about myself due to others treating me poorly early in life, or whenever. It’s about me having a neurological and biochemical need to be challenged and pushed — and people who treat me poorly are really good at that, without even thinking about it. They’re quite good at it, actually, and so it works out well for all of us — They have someone to abuse, and I’m a willing and ready target.

But low self-esteem is not the CAUSE of this cycle. It’s a RESULT of it. To stop the cycle, I need to get to the cause. Here’s a picture of my conception of it.

How it all connects

And out of the end-result of the low self-esteem, feeling inadequate, being down on myself and feeling damaged, comes the impetus to seek out yet more stress and danger and risk — in relationships and work, etc.

So, there it is. I can see it clearly in front of me, and it makes total sense to me. Now, what to do about it? Having this knowledge is one thing. Putting it into action is another.

It all takes practice. It takes repetition, to turn the cycles around. It takes a series of little successes and lessons from failures, to make progress. The main thing for me, right now, is focusing on the fundamentals — getting adequate rest, and keeping up with my breathing and body scans, which help me to manage my stress and keep the fight-flight parts of my brain from flipping out over every little thing.

The problem on Friday was that I was tired. I was fried. I was also stressed from things going awry, over and over again. I was also pissed off that I wasn’t getting any help at all, and I felt really used and taken advantage of and manipulated, which in turn put me into even more of a fight-flight frame of mind/body. Now seeing how my weekend has been hosed, I have a chance today to restore some of what I lost over the past two days. I have to be really easy on myself and be grateful that I am able to see what’s going on with me — and be very grateful that I can get help tomorrow from my NP. I need to be able to trust myself, which I’m not feeling much like doing, right now, and I need to believe that I will be able to learn from my mistakes and missteps and come out stronger in the end.

Ultimately, I think the real answer to so much of this, is finding things that truly excite and interest me, and being able to pursue them. When I can replace the negative, draining stress with something that really picks me up and keeps me engaged in life and gets me out of my head, I find myself energized and really involved in my life and with others, in ways that the negative stress can never achieve.

Will I ever have no need for the negative stress? I’m not sure that will ever happen. But for now, I know about it, and for now I can do something about it. And so I shall.

Time to go back to bed. So I can call my Dad later.

Change it up

How easy it is, to fall into a rut.

Day in and day out, I have pretty much the same routine, and part of me likes it. I get up, I exercise, I have my breakfast, I go to work, I come home, make supper, watch some television or read or do some work, and then I go to bed. In between, I may stretch or take a walk or do some sort of additional exercise. I’ll also check my email periodically and have a cup of coffee and a snack in the afternoon to keep me going.

Each day, it’s pretty much the same. Even on the weekends, my routine doesn’t change much. It’s great for keeping myself on track with a consistent, reliable schedule. And it makes me quite reliable, as well. I often have so much going on in my life, I don’t have a lot of leeway to stray from my path. That makes me a valuable employee, a responsible spouse, and a solid community member.

It also represents a bit of a change from how I used to live my life, when each day was a new form of improvisation, and I really didn’t have much routine at all. When I was much younger, I drifted from job to job, relationship to relationship, state to state, country to country, residence to residence, a bohemian vagabond who was more interested in the experience of living, than actually accomplishing anything.

Then I got all respectable and what-not. I got a real job. I settled down with a partner. I had responsibilities. And I changed how I did things, becoming responsible to a fault — rigid and regimented and not very flexible at all.

I went from one extreme to another. It wasn’t all bad. It made a lot possible for me that had eluded me for years — a steady income, a (somewhat) predictable career path, respect from people around me, a higher standard of living.

But I’m starting to feel antsy again. Sometimes it’s nice to change things up a little bit, and I’m beginning to feel the pull of change. I guess working in technology for the past 20 years, I’ve sort of become dependent on constant change — I expect it, I’ve acclimated to it, as things are never static for long in the technology field.

The trick now is to introduce some change into my life that doesn’t derail everything I’ve accomplished. My job history is dotted with relatively brief (12-18 months) positions that focused on one thing, then I “traded up’ to something else. I’m not sure I want to do that. I need a change. I crave a change. But I need to find somewhere to have healthy change — not destructive change.

In the past, I’ve been all too quick to just cut and run, when things got too familiar, or too comfortable, or downright easy. I need things to be challenging, and it’s always been tough to find regular challenge that can last. Especially when I’m working in environments that are geared towards standardizing everything and making things as predictable and as “safe” as possible.

I suck at safe. It’s just not me. But being a danger-seeking adventurer doesn’t go over that well in the corporate world.

I need change, and I need it on a regular basis. But I’m also realistic. Looking at my life, I don’t really want to get rid of my routine — it makes my daily life possible in ways that a hectic, constantly changing and shifting series of distractions can never do. But I do want to change some things about my routine. Like the exercise I do, first thing. For about a year, I did the same exercises — lifting free weights in the same kinds of sets, in the same sequence — and I never deviated from that.

Which is fine. If that’s all I wanted to do. But I found that it had all become quite rote and, well, boring. And it wasn’t waking me up quite the way it used to. I guess I’d gotten too acclimated, and I didn’t actually need to work at it anymore — which is the whole point of my exercises, first thing — to work out and wake myself up in the process.

So, I switched up the weights I was using and went heavier. I also changed the number of repetitions in each set.

I also moved away from doing ONLY weights, and I started doing more full-range movement, to strengthen and stretch more of me, not just isolated muscle groups. I started doing a bit of yoga, following along with some videos I found.

The overall results have been good, I’m happy to report.I feel more awake and more “with it,” thanks to this shift in how I’m starting my day. I feel more energized, actually, with these small alterations in my routine. I still have the structure of the routine to get me into my day, but I have some leeway in the midst of it all to perk things up a bit. I can have the best of both worlds – a regular routine that gets me into the day, along with some variety to keep me interested and engaged.

The same thing holds true for my work at my day job. I’ve pretty much “got it down,” after nearly a year of some pretty arduous efforts. Now I need to keep with it and build on what I’ve got, rather than running off to find some other way to keep my attention trained on what it is I’m doing. I need to watch my energy, that’s for sure, and not wear myself out. But I also need to keep active and not let myself fall into the trap of getting bored… and then getting in trouble.

It sounds odd to hear myself saying this. At my age, one would think I have more sense and more stability than to be debating this, but it’s a lifelong habit of cutting and running that I have to overcome. It’s taken me three years of regular rehab — talking with someone who understands my cognitive issues within the context of my history of TBIs — but I’m finally at the point where I realize that I don’t have to completely trash my life, in order to stay engaged.

Actually, on a deeper level there’s something important going on — I’m finally at the point where I (at long last) realize that I’ve been trashing my life to stay engaged, all along. I never realized that, till I learned about how TBI and neurology affect attention and distraction and resistance to interference, that seeking out drama and “refreshed” situations (read, new jobs, new friends, new homes, new… everything) was my way of keeping myself alive and involved in my life.

It’s not that I deliberately want to sabotage myself, or that I don’t think I deserve to have success in the long term. People have told me that story about myself for as long as I can remember. They’ve told me the following:

  • You’re a quitter.
  • You don’t have what it takes to get the job done.
  • You’re not up to the task – it’s too hard for you.
  • You’re trying to sabotage yourself/the group/the job for some deep-seated psychological reason.
  • You don’t think you deserve success.
  • You just can’t.

In fact, the exact opposite was true in many cases.

  • I wasn’t a quitter – I had a really hard time holding my attention on tasks that were easy, and I didn’t know I had that problem, so I could never address it.
  • I did have what it takes to get the job done – in fact, I had more than enough, but the easier the task got, the harder it was for me to concentrate.
  • I was up to the task – it was actually too easy for me.
  • I wasn’t trying to sabotage yourself/the group/the job for some deep-seated psychological reason – it was a neurological and physiological combination of compromised attention, susceptibility to distraction, and anxiety that set in when things started to go wrong.
  • I didn’t start out thinking I didn’t deserve success – but after so many failures and aborted attempts, I started to believe it.
  • I could — I just couldn’t see what my issues were, so I couldn’t deal with them.

As a matter of fact, many of the “decisions” I have made to either “give up” or “start fresh” were not conscious decisions at all. They were impulses driven by a serious need for alertness and attention — which was physiologically compromised by my neurology, and which I could only get back through changing up things, when they got familiar and comfortable and I was approaching mastery.

The easier things got for me, the less I paid attention, and then things started to fall apart. When things started to fall apart, I would get anxious, wondering why the hell things were starting to go south — and that anxiety and worry would further encroach on my already limited attentional capacity. I would start making choices that stressed me out, and because I thrive on a moderate dose of stress hormones, I would keep that up, gradually exhausting myself and burning myself out and endangering my working relationships.

The downward cycle would commence. And keep going. Until I was out looking for another job.

I would go looking for something else that wasn’t familiar — I’d wander off in search of more excitement that didn’t involve the situation I was fleeing. I told myself I wanted another adventure. It wasn’t that I needed to trash my life — I just couldn’t think as well as I wanted to, anymore, in those old familiar surroundings. I couldn’t function as well as I desired, and that made me very anxious and complicated everything all the more.

In a way, the easier things got for me, the harder it was for me to stay.

So, I didn’t.

Now, here I am at a job I really like, with people I really like, in an industry that’s actually stable and growing. I’ve got it really good. They like me, too. There’s absolutely no reason I should leave. So, I need to find ways to keep myself alert and engaged and attentive. Focused. Intact.

My TBIs have trashed my life often enough in the past. Time to change things up. For the better.

When getting hurt feels good

Hurt doesn't always hurt

I’m back from vacation, and I’m already starting to feel over-taxed. Time to get out in front of what I’m doing and take command of my days, my time, my energy. Most important of all,  I need to not get down on myself, thinking there’s something wrong with me, because I can’t “keep up” with everything going on. I have more stringent definitions of what “keeping up” is all about, anyway, so I need to give myself a break and be a bit easier on myself.

I’m doing great. I really am. I’ve been getting great reviews at work, and I have a really good feeling about this year. We’re already through the first quarter, and we’re moving on. Just gotta keep moving on…

One thing I noticed – again – is that I tend to push myself harder than I should. It’s partly because I have high standards, it’s partly because I have this perpetual sense that I’m falling behind, and it’s partly because I really dig the feeling of pushing myself really hard — even to the point where I’m hurting myself. I’ll stay up too late, take on too many tasks, drive myself onward-onward and feel the effects of it, day in and day out, till I crash. But I won’t stop.

I did this when I was younger, too. When I played sports, I would just push myself and push myself and push myself, playing through many injuries, including head injuries. It didn’t help that I had pre-existing concussions by the time I got to high school and started playing organized sports. I think, in fact, it contributed to my willingness/eagerness to play through injuries. Definitely, having the prior concussions contributed to the impact of the ones I sustained in high school. They made the actual injuries worse, and they made my responses to them less intelligent and more stubborn and non-compliant.


Am I innately self-destructive? No, I’m not.

Do I want to hurt myself? Did I have a deathwish, back when I was younger? No, that’s not it.

Do I disrespect myself and think poorly of myself, so I have to be punished for some terrible thing I think I”ve done? Sometimes I feel that way, but not all the time.

So, why do I do it? Why do I push myself hard (and crash hard, too) when I know it has a negative effect on me and my world.

Because as much as I intellectually know it bodes ill for the rest of my life, the simple fact is, it feels really good to push through, to play through, to keep going.

This comes back, yet again to the energy/focus/analgesic stress idea that’s been on my mind a lot, over the past years. It has to do with the calming effects of stress hormones, the way they help block out all extraneous details and simplify things for me. It has to do with the pain-deadening effects of the biochemical cascade that comes online when you’re in high-pressure, dangerous, high-stress situations. It has to do with the rush and the chill that comes from extreme living.

It has to do with pain and trouble introducing a relief of some kind, and how I instinctively seek that out.

It’s not that I want to harm myself with stress and pain. I actually want to help myself. Because the pain and fatigue and confusion of so many stimuli coming up — when I’m fatigued, I become even more sensitive, and my hearing, sense of smell and touch, and eyesight all become amplified, picking up every little thing. It’s painful and confusing, and I just want it to stop.

So, I push myself. I push myself through the work I’m doing. I push myself to get up earlier, to stay up later, to take on more tasks, and I overwhelm myself.

On purpose.

Not because I want to hurt myself, but because I want to help myself. And the stress hormones do just that. The adrenaline I get pumping, the intense focus I bring, the ability to shut everything out, just to focus on one individual task or experience at a time… it gives me a huge amount of relief. Relief from the aches and pains and sore tightness in my joints and muscles. Relief from the fog that sets in from having so many responsibilities going on that I lose track of. Relief from my insecurities about being able to get anything done at all.

Just relief.

And that’s a problem. It’s always been a problem, for as long as I can remember. As far as I’m concerned, this need — real, physical, logistical (NOT psychological) need — to plunge into stressful situations — has been at the root of many of my issues over the years. I can very easily see how it has fed my behavior issues, my distractability, my inability to complete things, my restlessness and inability to stay the course over so many years before I got started with rehab. Contrary to what many psychologists will say, I’m convinced (from my own personal experience) that it’s NOT a psychological choice to “sabotage” myself — that’s not it at all. It’s a real physical, logistical need that’s borne of neurological conditions, not psychological ones.

And to think that for so many years, I was convinced that there was something wrong with my psychology, that I was suffering from low self-esteem, that I was self-destructive, that I was somehow psychologically impaired, when all along, there were fundamental underlying neurological and biochemical reasons for my behavior and choices.

It makes me a little nuts, to think of all the years I spent feeling psychologically impaired because of misunderstood neurological conditions. But at least I’m aware of the true nature of my issues now. And that’s half the battle, right there.

If I can get some rest, step back, take another look at how I’m living my life, and make some choices that I want to make about how I want to live my life, rather than having them be made for me by reflex or reaction, drive by others’ agendas, that will be good. I’m doing that now. I’m looking at my pain levels, my sleeping issues (I’ve started lying down on the couch earlier in the evening and just going to sleep for a while when I’m tired, so I’m less exhausted when I actually go to bed – and I can actually GET to bed), my daily routine… I’m looking at it all.

Vacation was good, but it didn’t solve everything. But at least it gave me a little more rest and some distance to contemplate what it is I’m doing with myself and why/how I want to do it all.

Which is good.

Getting hurt isn’t the only thing that feels good. Sometimes getting things right feels pretty awesome, too.

I just need to make a point of focusing on that.

And find yet more replacements for the kinds of activities that give me that huge rush — the rush I don’t just crave, but can’t live without.

A Perilous Relief: Bliss From Within – The Glory of Endogenous Opioids

For better or for worse, I tend to have pretty high stress levels. It comes from an eventful past, as well as a busy present, and the intense drive to realize my deepest desires for my future. Certainly, it’s not much fun having to constantly “quality control” my thoughts and my actions, so I don’t get myself in trouble over post-traumatic stress that has nothing to do with what’s really going on around me. I certainly don’t want my energy and attention to get pulled down by old stuff that still makes me jump when an unidentified figure appears out of the corner of my eye. And it’s no fun “melting down”

But being highly stressed isn’t as bad as it might sound. In fact, there is a side to my typically high levels of stress that feeds me. And I love it. After years of being down on myself for being “over-stressed,” I’ve come to terms with that shadow side of myself. And I’ve learned to love my stress.

Here’s why:

In addition to these classic “fight-or-flight” responses to get you going, the little almond-shaped gland in the brain, the amygdala, triggers the brain to release endogenous opioids (opium-like chemicals that originate in your own system) which help your system function adequately in high-demand situations.

These endogenous opioids are a built-in part of our naturally functioning system and they are ever-available in varying quantities. Endogenous literally means “from inside”. And endogenous opioids are magic opium-like potions our systems create on their own (it’s been discovered that the human body actually produces morphine in small amounts). Yes, Virginia, there is a way to get high on your own steam, as the biochemicals our brains produce are of the same type as the illegal, intensely addictive stuff you can buy in a plastic baggie from some sleaze who will take sex as payment for the goods instead of money. They’re just a little different, so they match our body chemistry better. And they aren’t usually available to our bodies through our brains in the intense concentrations that leave overdosed junkies dead on the street.

In particular, these internal substances can have a hypoalgesic or analgesic (pain reducing) effect on the body, which helps you deal instinctively with whatever threat is in front of you, without having to deal with pain, as well. I’ve read that endogenous opioids serve to suppress the “lick response” in injured animals, so they can escape. (An animal, when injured, will instinctively stop to lick itself and tend to its wounds, but if it’s been injured by a predator this instinctual response makes it easy prey for its hungry attacker. By suppressing the pain – and the lick response – this natural impulse lets the animal ignore its wounds and focus on escaping to live to see another day.)

The same holds true with us humans. Imagine how short-lived we would be in crisis situations, if we were distracted by pain and other heightened sensations. We’d be too busy going “Ow! Ow! Ow!” and checking to see what bone we broke or what piece of flesh we tore, to get out of the way of the oncoming rockslide, tidal wave, or speeding bus, or haul ourselves out a burning car and run to safety before the gas tank explodes. The adrenaline rush and sudden biochemical cascade of pain-numbing opioids makes it possible for us to do important things like rescue each other, even when the rescuer is injured… to pull ourselves from danger, even if we’ve been hurt… and do things that would be utterly impossible, if we had to deal – for real — with intense pain. Endogenous opioids may well have been what let that tech guy save himself from dying on an ill-fated hike through the California wilderness by hacking his arm off below the elbow with a pocket knife.

Now, these endogenous opioids are truly wonderful things. Among them are Endorphin, Enkephalin, and Dynorphin. More research keeps trickling in about these substances — and others like them. It seems implausible that we could know so little about these important biochemicals until recently, but some of these have only been identified and studied since the mid-1990’s. And by the time I write (and you read) this, much more will probably be known about these substances, and how they interact with our sensitive systems.

It’s my understanding that the reason that artificial opiates work is because they are so much like the opioids we produce in our own bodies. Like a copy of a master key fitting into a lock, artificial/man-made opiates “open the same doors” that our own bodies normally have closed… and then open, when properly prompted by our biochemical “keys”. If you consider how strongly heroin and morphine can affect the human system, and if you consider that the only reason they work is ‘cause they mimic the qualities of opioids we already have in our own brains/brains, you can begin to understand just how powerful our own biochemical systems intrinsically are.

Yes, these endogenous opioids have the same sort of effect on us as opiates. They cut pain. They give us a euphoric feeling. They help clear our minds. They do amazing things to make life worth living. Lenny Bruce, the heroin addict, said of his addiction, “… it’s like kissing God.” If you consider that endogenous opioids can work the magic of relieving/inhibiting pain, imparting euphoria, and making us think better, it explains how human beings can sometimes perform at super-human levels irrespective of pain, danger, stress, or other normally stymieing influences (like, for example, the voice in their head urging them (in vain) to keep a low profile).

These magic potentialities we have in our brains have recently been getting more “air time” from scientists like Irving Biederman, who studies perceptual and cognitive pleasure. According to Dr. Biederman, we’re not only wired to survive — we’re wired to enjoy ourselves in the process. A lot. Things like learning new things, encountering novel situations, looking at innovative art, “tickle” the parts of our brains that release endogenous opioids into our systems.

So, under the worst and the best of circumstances, endogenous opioids are about as close to a gift from God as you can get. Not only do they buffer our bodies from the ill effects of extreme duress, but they also reward certain kinds of behavior (learning, in particular) with a pure shot of unbridled joy.

Kind of makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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More evidence of analgesic stress in my life

A quick note before I head off for my day…

One of the big, unmentioned pieces of the past few weeks has been the pain I’ve been in. My body has been really aching a lot — and I did a bunch of yard work last weekend, which threw me out of whack. My shoulders are giving me trouble, and my knees were acting up, too, which kind of sets me off.

Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I had real problems with chronic, debilitating pain. It just seemed to come out of nowhere. I didn’t connect it with the car accident I’d had in late 1987, but now it seems like the two were more than co-incidental.

I was never able to get help for that condition, and I spent years trying (in vain) to find a treatment that worked. Ultimately, the only thing that has helped me has been getting plenty of rest, taking hot baths, and keeping my stress level down.

But when I’m flaring up, as I have been for the past few weeks, it starts to drive me. I start to get increasingly anxious about it and I don’t do well with managing myself and my situations. I feel absolutely driven – propelled – through life, with sudden flashes of interest in things that don’t normally catch my attention. I feel compelled to pack each day full of as much interesting stuff as I can find. And I push myself beyond my means.

When I push myself hard, I feel better. I really do. Physically, I feel better… mentally, I feel clearer… and my self-esteem isn’t in the crapper. I feel like I can function, for once. The pain is gone. The anxiety subsides. I have an outlet for all my energy, and the stress I put myself under has a strongly analgesic effect on me.

I’m writing about this in greater detail in A Perilous Relief, and the past few weeks have been a great illustration of my underlying premise — namely, that risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior isn’t just a psychological compulsion. There are actually physical reasons for why people test their limits in extreme and sometimes dangerous ways, and those physical reasons are just as valid and vital as the psychological ones.

They’re also intimately connected — the psychological and physiological reasons for risk-taking/danger-seeking behavior. And in my own personal, daily experience, they feed each other… and soothe each other, too.

The stress I’ve been under has been taking a toll on me. But I’ve been compelled to push even harder. Why?

Because it cuts the pain.

A Perilous Relief : Because Extreme Duress Makes Me Feel Better

Thinking back over the course of my life, to all those times when I pushed myself, stretched myself, and in some cases really punished myself to get to a goal, I can see discernable patterns in my behavior:

  • I am presented with a variety of choices about people and activities and jobs.
  • Some of the choices are positive, pleasant, benign.
  • Other choices are more challenging, distasteful, and carry the threat of some ultimate negative consequence.
  • I know I have positive, pro-active options available to me, but time and again — against my better judgment and experience — I choose the lesser of the options and plunge myself into yet more chaos.
  • Sometimes things go well, and I reap the rewards for overcoming the challenge.
  • But other times, I burn out, flame out, crash and burst into a veritable brilliant fireball that can be seen for miles.
  • Friends, family, coworkers all scratch their heads and puzzle at my poor decision-making, my risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior that endangers my professional reputation and my social and financial viability.

I’ve been puzzling and puzzling over these patterns of mine for the longest time, trying to figure out why I’ve apparently been unable to learn from my past mistakes… always thinking, this time will be different… but it never is — it actually gets worse. Given my life experience, my intimate knowledge of my limits, and my determined commitment to self-care and peak performance, there is no way I should be doing these kinds of things and making these kinds of “mistakes” over and over. I’m not an idiot. I know better. I’m not mentally ill (from all indications 😉 and I always start out with the best of intentions.

What’s the attraction of danger? What’s the allure of risk? I’m not the kind of person who seeks out thrills and chills — I hate suspense movies and I shudder at the thought of skydiving or rock climbing — even with ropes. What’s wrong with me, that I continuously put my own professional and social well-being on the line, time after time? Am I addicted to adrenaline? Am I hopelessly brain-damaged, thanks to my multiple tbi’s? Is there some fundamental flaw in me that seeks out its own destruction, time after time, and wants to secretly destroy all the progress I’ve made over the years?

What about emotional issues? You might ask… I ask myself the same thing, at times. I have been known to keep busy-busy-busy to keep my mind off painful or uncomfortable thoughts. But I have dealt with a lot of my personal issues that used to get in the way, and it’s been years since I genuinely wanted to run from myself. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I don’t do drugs or drink alcohol. I am not running willy-nilly from old ghosts like I used to, and I’ve dealt with many emotional and psychological aspects of my past in a productive and definitive way.

Well, then, what about being addicted to an adrenaline high?1 I’m not sure how that’s possible. I don’t crave thrills like skydiving and freestyle skiing. I’m not fond of courting danger – like some of my siblings do. The very idea of taking extreme chances makes my blood cool. I’m a homebody who likes a quiet life. I’d rather curl up with a good white paper on cutting-edge neurological research than go mountain biking in the Grand Canyon around sunset.

So, why the hell do I do these stupid-ass things, time and again? What is it — really — that makes me make such risky social and professional choices and screw up so dramatically on such a regular basis?

In stepping back from my personal perspective, looking at all the objective data about my life, and then thinking about not only the things that went wrong, but the things that went right while things were going wrong, I’ve realized I actually feel better when I’m under a lot of stress and strain. And the higher the intensity of my stress experience, the better I feel.

I believe, based on my own observations about my life, that beyond the most obvious components in in my decision-making process, there’s something else at work. Something not cognitive, not emotional, not psychological, but something physical. Could it be that risk-taking / danger-seeking behavior meets a basic, fundamental physiological need in me which persists in spite of better judgment and deliberately broken bad habits? Could there be something about the experience of dangerous risk that – rather than boosting me into a super-human experience – supports me in having a normal human experience?

I’ve gradually come to realize (after untold hours of reflection and consideration and painstaking — and sometimes maddening — rehashing of patterns and details) that I need stress in order to function properly. I don’t seek it out in order to pump up an already fully functional system. I seek it out in order to bring a struggling system up to par, so I can participate normally in the world and have the kind of regular life that other people take for granted.

Not being in the same room with you, I can only guess at your reaction. But I suspect it’s one of skepticism and incredulity. Why on earth would someone need stress, in order to function? Why would they need to take risks and seek out danger, in order to live a normal life? Isn’t this a little… hyperbolic?

Since you’re not in the same room as me, and you aren’t privy to my personal experience, I’m not sure I can explain this exactly. But I’ll try…

1 Note: From where I’m sitting, using the common “addicted to thrills” metaphor implies that the high you’re getting is not necessarily something you need. It’s superfluous, it starts out as recreational, then you develop an irrational need for it, a destructive need for it. The terms “adrenaline junkie” and “addicted to thrills” carry pejorative connotations, as well, which I feel are not very helpful in understanding this phenomenon.

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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A Perilous Relief – I Would Like to Think I Know How to Learn

I have a lot of reasons to avoid risk-taking behavior and danger-seeking activities. I have a very full adult life, and I have a lot of responsibility. That, alone, should be reason enough for me to stay out of trouble.

As I’ve said, I believe that risk-taking behavior should be a learned skill. I don’t necessarily think we need to banish it wholesale from the human experience, but we should be familiar enough with it that we can satisfy our own innate (and very human) need for thrills and chills without wrecking our lives. I like to think that I’m a living example of someone who’s managed to do a decent job of that. The above examples are all in my past, and I have learned a great many lessons from the ones that “went south” or almost did. One would expect that, after 43 adventurous years and plenty of opportunity to reflect on my mistakes, I’d learn a thing or two. And, for the most part, I have.

I’d better. I have a great many adult responsibilities, including providing for a household, paying a monthly mortgage, keeping current on bills, managing a full-time career, and acting as part-time executive producer of a nationally syndicated weekly broadcast. I also have a number of health issues I need to actively manage, and I have hobbies and interests which engage me deeply on a regular basis. To say that my life is full-filling would be an understatement.

My life is so full, and so filling, in fact, that I need to go to extraordinary lengths to maintain ordinary functionality. I have persistent issues with chronic pain. I have cognitive-behavioral issues that stem from multiple head injuries over the course of my life, which – if not actively managed – threaten the most basic aspects of my life, including my employability and my interpersonal viability. I am keenly aware of how easy it would be to screw things up with a careless word or a stupid action – and lose everything I’ve worked so hard to accomplish. I have a packed schedule, most days, and if I don’t keep myself well-fed, well-rested, well-cared-for, I can quickly (and seemingly without warning) slide into old patterns that alienate people around me, compromise my ability to do my daily job(s), even threaten my well-being and safety.

I know all too well I can’t take chances with my health, my mental hygiene, my emotional state. I can’t take risks with my body or mind or spirit. I stand to lose too much. I stand to lose everything. And I’ve worked too hard getting where I am, to just throw it all away. So, I pay attention to the world around me. I take notice of the clues life is sending me. I pick up on signals that most people can afford to ignore, but I cannot. I have no choice but to remain ultra-mindful… of just about everything. (It might sound exhausting, but it’s the price I pay for a highly sensitive system. And frankly, after a lifetime of working at it, the habit of intense attendance to a wide range of details has simply become a way of life.)

But despite lessons learned from my rough-and-tumble past, despite my present awareness of responsibilities, and despite my normally level-headed, even-keel nature that eschews overt risk like the plague, I am still prone, now and then, to a sort of danger-seeking behavior that frankly makes no sense. I know better than to make decisions and follow courses of action that jeopardize my physical safety and my ability to make a living. I know better than to push myself physically to the point of exhaustion. I know better than to go off my usual schedule, which is so vital for my everyday normal functioning.

But Why?

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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A Perilous Relief: Risks I Took that Turned Out Badly

Throughout my risk-taking career, I have not only taken risks that paid off or that I barely escaped, but I have also taken a number of risks that failed to deliver on both small and large scales. And I have made choices, especially with regard to work and associates, which some would consider extremely risky — and I lost the silent “bet” I made with myself that everything would work out great.

For some reason, I tend to gravitate towards people who I should steer clear of. Either they are so different from me, we don’t have much in common that will stand the test of time, or they are just plain no good for me. They aren’t on the same wavelength as me, they don’t agree with my philosophies, and even worse, they judge me for my beliefs, they are really hard on me, and the courtesy I extend to them is never returned, only repudiated. I have had a number of long-term friendships/relationships that grew increasingly hostile because my friend/lover was totally at odds with me, and as the relationship progressed and the divide between us continued to widen, they began to act out aggressively towards me when I didn’t fit with their world view. It’s a little daunting (and depressing) to think about it, but there it is.

For some reason (that has eluded me for decades), I don’t seem to gravitate towards people who are in synch with me. There’s just not much of an attraction there. I don’t get the same “charge” from people who are like me, and I don’t seem to find them very interesting. We may have plenty in common, but the more compatible with someone I am, the less interest I have in them. Rather, people who are on the opposite end of the spectrum, philosophically and ethically, attract me like a magnet attracts iron shavings.

The thing is, I often don’t even realize the chasm between my own personality and theirs, until I’ve developed a substantial relationship with them. This happens at work, as well as in my personal life. And once I realize how at-odds with them I am, our relationship has taken on a life of its own, and I’m “stuck” with them — and they with me. The problem is, I tend to be a lot more accommodating of others’ differences, than they are with mine. So I end up on the wrong end of the deal, getting the brunt of their neglect/abuse/maltreatment/judgment — you name it — while they happily romp all over me.

Ironically (for I am actually a very self-assured and assertive individual), I often feel very comfortable in those kinds of situations. In fact, I sometimes feel better in situations where I’m being mistreated, than when I’m totally accommodated and accepted. The problem is, the mistreatment takes a toll, and eventually, I buckle under the pressure and say/do something that puts me completely at odds with the folks I don’t synch with. And when I melt down, I look like the “bad guy” because all along, nobody had any clue that I wasn’t okay with their perspectives and/or behavior, and they had no reason to change, because I didn’t make an issue of it. They have no clue they are part of the problem, because I am able to stay cool as a cucumber up to a certain point, and I’ve never indicated I felt that way. The only indication they have that things are amiss, is when I blow up, melt down, pitch a fit, or say/do something that is not only unprofessional but insubordinate and uncollegial.

At the risk of totally depressing myself, I’ll outline just a few instances of this kind of behavior.

Professional Danger-Seeking Activity That Went South

I have held a disproportionately large number of jobs working for bosses or companies that were not a good fit. In the best of cases, they were mildly annoying and were an inconvenient way to make a living. In the worst of cases, they were abusive, neglectful or outright hostile to me. I have stuck it out with rake-you-over-the-coals-type employers with widespread reputations for being “burnout shops,” and I have put in many hours working with abusive sons of bitches who didn’t evidence a single kind bone in their bodies.

But despite all my bad experiences, I have persisted in choosing jobs that were bad fits for me, including jobs at companies with commutes that I knew were too long for me to make comfortable, twice a day, five days a week, and positions with companies that were so at-odds with my own moral code that I came to loathe myself for working for them within weeks of taking the job. And despite my discomfort, I have persevered at those jobs, irrationally successful in extremely harsh environments, despite my best intentions to protect myself… this time.

I also have a history of gravitating to employment situations that had very little security and substandard compensation. I would take work as a contractor with a company that had a history of summarily dismissing contract staff, or I would take a position that paid me less than I could easily command on the market with my skills and experience.

Typically, I would thrive in those kinds of environments for a number of months… until I began to exhaust myself — and started to say and do things that put my job and professional standing in danger. I would start to be disruptive in meetings, stop meeting my deadlines, become argumentative, even combative, with people whom I found increasingly distressing, and in some cases I would become downright insubordinate and start to foment dissent and agitation in the ranks. I would start to pick fights, stop being so long-suffering and accepting, and despite my better judgment and intelligence, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. What’s more, despite my decreasing job satisfaction, I would take on more and more responsibility, overburdening my already taxed system, and eventually I’d burn out or flame out or become physically ill (which impacted my ability to think rationally and act responsibly)… all the while being unable to halt my downward slide – or even accurately detect it till it was too late.

Looking back, I can see how I have really paid, time and time again, for my poor choices in ill-fitting work. But despite my best intentions, I end up working with people and companies, over and over, who are not good fits for me, doing work that is neither challenging nor as financially rewarding as it should be. But I can’t seem to resist the draw of those types of scenarios. In fact, I have often actively sought out those kinds of work environments — against my better judgment, my past experience, and the urgings of my friends, family and co-workers. Although I am well aware of the risks involved and I have had more than my fair share of wishful thinking failure-dramas, when it comes to seeking out new work, I have to actively discourage myself from being involved in pie-in-the-sky too-good-to-be-true job offerings, and I have to make a concerted effort to seek out stable employment.

  • At Risk: Employment, job security, personal happiness
  • Dangers: Unemployment, poor working conditions, professional backlash from jobs gone bad
  • Rewards: Satisfaction of “being able to do it” and “hanging tough”, continued employment, acquired ability to function in a wide variety of work situations, respect of professional peers
  • Outcome(s): Continuous employment, financial security, repeated screw-ups in job choices, intermittent and recurring job dissatisfaction

Personal Choices that Sucked

In my personal life, I’ve had a long history of bad choices, as well. I have gotten into a number of relationships (romantic and otherwise) which were not in my best interest. They weren’t good ideas when I was initially attracted to them, they weren’t good ideas when I started them, and they just went downhill, the longer I stayed with them. To the untrained eye, in some cases, the friendship/relationship looked like “the right thing to do.” The other person “looked good on paper” or was very popular, or they were the kind of person that other people said I should be with — but no doubt about it, it was a bad match. And I was drawn to the dynamic like a moth to the flame.

In a number of cases, my friend/partner was so completely different from me, so at odds with what I thought a decent person should be like, and quite aggressive about their take in life, that I ended up first getting swept up in their own life and perspectives, and then I got bullied into sticking with them, just because they had grown attached to me (and my wallet). How many times I’ve ended up being friends (or lovers) with someone whose main interest was in how much stuff I could buy them and how obedient I was to their whims, I’m embarrassed to say. But it has happened. Over and over again. And each time, I’ve been dismayed and horrified to re-realize that I was repeating old patterns. Over and over again.

  • At Risk: Personal happiness and fulfillment, financial well-being, personal autonomy & safety
  • Dangers: Being trapped in bad relationships, abuse, exploitation by friends/partners, self-loathing
  • Rewards: I’m rarely alone, continuous relationships, popularity
  • Outcome(s): String of “good things gone bad”, decreased self-esteem, long history of interpersonal lessons learned

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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A Perilous Relief – Risks I Took that I Barely Escaped

I believe that smart risk-taking should be a learned skill. Danger-seeking may come naturally, early on in life, but it needs to be properly learned, in order to be survivable. History is full of examples of people who either could not or would not learn how to survive their own need for stimulation. Fighter pilots, rock climbers, base jumpers, extreme skiers, stuntmen… and more.

I’ve teetered on the edge myself, and there have been a number of times I came close to being harmed, but miraculously managed to elude disaster. Sometimes it was dumb luck that I got out in one piece, while other times it was the learning from my past experiences that I had to thank for my continued existence.

Social Danger-Seeking

I have always been an assertive, even aggressive, individual, and as a young kid, I had a tendency to engage strangers in conversation and provoke them. I relished the experience of challenging someone to a duel of wits or interacting with people who (I thought) were up to no good. I was a bit of a crusader, when I was a kid, and I had all the best of intentions. The problem was, I usually lacked the ability to successfully negotiate the entire social transaction, and there were a lot of arguments I started but couldn’t finish — or that ended in me being attacked or threatened in some way. Many of them I managed to get out of… barely.

When I was about nine years old, while walking to school, a (female) schoolmate and I were once chased by young (high-school aged) men who drove by in a car. I yelled out to them and baited them, itching for a fight (okay, I wasn’t the brightest kid at times, clearly), and when they pulled the car over and started coming after my schoolmate and me, we were barely able to elude them by hiding in the underbrush. I endangered both myself and my schoolmate, who could have been seriously injured (including raped), as a result of my brash behavior. We both escaped, but I believe the girl’s mother refused to let her walk to school with me, after that. I still feel terrible about the role I played in that scenario.

Throughout my grade school years, I had numerous run-ins with other kids who were bigger and stronger and angrier than I, running my big mouth and pushing limits of our social dynamics, till they struck out at me. On several occasions, my provocation was enough to get me physically attacked, or ganged up on and bullied for an entire year of school. The summer after 6th grade, I chose the wrong kid to take on — they were a year ahead of me in school and they had a lot of friends who were as angry and as aggressive as they — and I spent my whole 7th grade year hiding from this gang with a long and vengeful memory. I didn’t get beaten up, but part of me wishes I had, so they could have gotten their aggression out of their systems. That bullying seriously impeded my social progress for years to come. If I’d only kept my mouth shut, that hot summer day in 1977.

  • At Risk: Personal safety
  • Dangers: Interpersonal strife, Attack/assault
  • Rewards: Heightened sense of self, thrills, sense of adventure
  • Outcome(s): Quarrels and altercations, social “near misses”, Narrow escape from possible assault

A few years later, as a rebellious teenager, I was also a trouble-maker who drank and smoked and challenged authority for no better reason other than to do it. I sold drugs out of my high school locker, I bought and sold liquor out of the trunks of cars, and I brazenly tucked my pack of cigarettes in the sleeve pocket of my winter coat, not caring who saw — even my coaches and teachers. I sneaked beer into school, in my gym bag and drank it in the bathroom before first period. I drank — and drove drunk — on back roads, and I ran with a pretty rough crowd of drug dealers, thieves, and felons-to-be. I was never in trouble with the law, however, and I eluded detection for the most part. The times when I was detected by authorities, I got off with a warning. I’m frankly amazed, at times, that I didn’t end up in juvie hall, for all the crap I pulled off. I think the fact that my parents were respectable, church-going members of their segment of society got me off the hook, and a lot of adults around me weren’t looking at me very closely, because — as a “brain” — they were more concerned with my oddly substandard grades than my social/behavior problems, and they didn’t want me to have a record. But if someone had just looked a little more closely, they would have found a lot of misdemeanors and actual felonies I was committing without so much as a moment of hesitation.

  • At Risk: Social standing, reputation, relationship with authority figures, health, well-being, future prospects, academic performance, personal and interpersonal maturation
  • Dangers: Trouble with authorities, worsening reputation, legal action (arrest), physical harm from dangerous associates
  • Rewards: Thrills, sense of adventure, financial reward, social reward (from socially marginal associates and “customers”), relief from social pressure to conform, defiant independence, self-assertion
  • Outcome(s): Drinking problems, reduced academic performance, social alienation, health problems, poor relations with authority figures

When I was a junior in college, I went to Europe for a semester abroad. I purchased a one-way ticket to Switzerland and borrowed $1,000 from a family member, not having any idea how I was going to make ends meet in Europe… or even pay for my way home. While overseas in the European Union (where non-EU residents are effectively barred from ‘taking jobs from Europeans’), I managed to land a job working for an American expatriate, and although I was really struggling with getting along there, I stayed on and turned a semester into a multi-year stay. I never managed to complete my college degree, but I got an unparalleled education in living an independent life.

  • At Risk: Personal safety, future professional prospects
  • Dangers: Personal harm, financial difficulties
  • Rewards: Sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, improved professional outlook, lots of great stories, good life experience
  • Outcome(s): Several years overseas, unique take on life thanks to my time abroad

These are just a few examples of how I’ve courted danger, socially, throughout my childhood and young adulthood. There were a lot more instances than that, but the bottom line is, I have a lifelong history of taking social risks.

Physical Danger-Seeking

I also took physical risks, when I was younger. As a teenager, I was a tree climber, and I often climbed well above where it was safe to go. I well remember the sensation of climbing 50 feet up, into the uppermost branches, which sagged and swayed beneath me, creaking and threatening to break beneath me. I persisted in climbing higher, even when my heart was in my throat and my pulse was pounding and my head knew it was not safe to go any further up. I only fell once; after that, I stopped climbing trees. Lesson learned.

  • At Risk: Physical safety and well-being
  • Dangers: Falling from great heights, being injured while alone in the woods
  • Rewards: Sense of adventure, ability to remove myself from the rest of the world, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem
  • Outcome(s): Solitude and solace, minor injury

Interestingly, at the same time that I was acting out with drugs and alcohol and challenging authority as a teenager, I was also a medal-winning athlete who was a team captain on several sports, and I lettered each season in my chosen area. In my quest for excellence, I routinely pushed the limits of my physical endurance and really punished my body, driving it relentlessly beyond its capabilities. I played injured, time and again, and even when I got hit hard and was slow getting up — in retrospect, I now understand that I sustained multiple concussions throughout my high school sports activities — I was back in the game, keeping on keeping on. All that mattered, was the game.

  • At Risk: Health and safety, physical well-begin
  • Dangers: Injuries, concussions, mild TBI
  • Rewards: Social approval, team membership, medals and ribbons, heightened social status, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem
  • Outcome(s): Longstanding health concerns due to injuries, acquired tendency to ignore warning messages from my injured body and “play injured” in other aspects of life

When I was sixteen, while traveling with my family across the country, after a whole day in the car, I got out and literally sat on the edge of the Grand Canyon, with nothing other than my sense of balance keeping me from plunging hundreds of yards down to a rocky death. After being in that close space with all my siblings, rolling across the countryside with no break, no respite, no escape from the noise and din of my family, I was so out of it, so stir-crazy, so aching for a little fresh air, I actually literally sat on the edge of an abyss. I didn’t even realize what I was doing, until a little while had passed, my head had cleared, and I’d gotten enough of an adrenaline “pump” to realize where I was. It really made no sense for me to do that — I am mortally afraid of heights, including precipitous drops to a canyon floor hundreds of yards below. But I needed that little while, perched on the verge of my own destruction, to bring me back to my senses. Once I had them back, and I realized where I was,  I got up very slowly, I can tell you.

  • At Risk: Physical safety
  • Dangers: Plunging to my death in the Grand Canyon
  • Rewards: Relief from being cooped up in a loud vehicle, getting away from everyone (who didn’t dare come near the edge)
  • Outcome(s): Cleared my head… but also realized I was perched on the brink of an abyss

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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Throwing nuts at the cheetah

I had a really troubling dream just before I woke up this morning.

I was walking through the woods with two friends of mine. It was almost like a jungle or rain forest – the air was very humid and the trees were huge and spaced apart, and the forest floor was quite open — not a lot of underbrush, but springy underfoot. We were walking along a wide path that was well-worn, and we were talking about this and that. I believe we were discussing possible dangers from big cats that had been seen in the area.

If I remember correctly, the woods had been cleared of all dangerous wild animals a while back, but some big animals had escaped and had returned to their habitat, so hikers were warned to be very careful and not engage them.

We walked and talked for a while, and I was picking up stones and nuts and old pieces of tropical fruit that had fallen from the trees. I was tossing them around, and my friends were getting irritated with me. They wanted me to stop, but I didn’t feel like talking with them. They were just running at the mouth, and I was getting overwhelmed with all the words.

We were passing by an open clearing that was raised up above the path, when we looked up and saw a cheetah sitting in the sunlight. It was a beautiful animal, so sleek and strong. It also looked very dangerous and wild. My friends said we should walk by it slowly and not bother it. They were both terrified of it.

I was thinking that I knew how to deal with a big cat. I’ve learned (for real, not only in the dream) that with big cats, if you come across them, you have to face them down. Make yourself as big as possible and stare them in the eye. You cannot show any fear, and you cannot turn your back on them, because when they hunt, they go for the back of their prey’s neck. If you do show them fear, or you turn your back to them, they instinctively attack and go for you. This is why joggers and cyclists are often attacked by mountain lions in California — they have their back turned to the animal or their heads are down, exposing the backs of their necks, so the big cats attack.

I wasn’t afraid of the big cat, and I felt like I needed to show it who was boss. I also felt a kind of rush from the imminent danger — Here was a cheetah! A big cat this close! We were in danger for our lives! I felt that familiar rush of adrenaline that sharpens my senses and pumps me up and makes me do things that I would not do under normal circumstances. Something in me surged with daring, and I took a nut I’d been holding and threw it at the cheetah. I felt a thrill of danger course through me, and I cursed myself for having thrown it at the cat. The nut bounced near it, and the animal flinched, and it looked like it was going to back off and leave us alone. My heart was pounding and my mind was calculating what I would do in response to it. I was watching it very, very carefully, to see what it would do, and for a few moments, it looked like the big cat was going to withdraw into the woods and leave us alone.

But then my friends got very frightened that I’d thrown the nut at the cat, and they started to freak out and panic. My one friend started to shake and quiver, and my other friend, who is a bit overweight and doesn’t move very quickly in real life, took off running down the trail. In my dream, I was thinking, “What are you doing?! You’re going to catch its attention! Why are you running from a cheetah? You can’t outrun it! You have to stare it down. You have to stand your ground!

I looked up at the big cat and saw it had suddenly spotted my friend. in an instant, it recovered its composure, sprang into action, and raced after my friend. It looked so beautiful in motion, all its sinews taut, its coat shining in the sunlight that filtered through the canopy above us. But my admiration was short-lived, as it caught up with my friend, grabbed them by the back of the neck, and started to run off with their body dangling from its jaw.

Frozen with horror for a moment, I took off running after the cheetah, yelling at the top of my lungs and willing myself to run faster. I was convinced I could catch it and wrestle my friend from its grip.

The big cat was very fast, though, and it was way ahead of me, with my friend’s body hanging from its jaws. I was horrified and mortified, and my other friend was screaming at me for throwing the nut at the cheetah and making it angry. In my head, I was trying to calculate how far the cheetah could get, carrying my friend’s heavy body, if I could catch up with it because it would be slowed down by the weight, and if I could get to it in time to save my friend. I suspected that my friend had been killed instantly, or that even if I did catch up, the cheetah would be eating them, so there wasn’t much point in my running after them.

Plus, I ran out of steam after a few hundred yards, and I had to stop. I was so upset at what had happened. On the one hand, I was upset with myself for throwing that nut, but I was also upset with my friend for not having better sense, and I was upset with the whole chain of events that was probably killing my friend.

I woke up very disturbed around 5:00, and I haven’t been able to get back to sleep.

I think that this dream has something to say about a lot of aspects of my life, these days. I have a lot of people around me who are very frightened for me, as I talk to them about my TBIs and the issues that go along with them. They’re like the friends in my dream, who just want to walk along quietly along a well-worn path in the woods, chatting about this and that, not really bothered by anything… cognizant that there are things amiss in the world, but not really eager to confront them.

There’s also a part of me that’s like that. I don’t want to be bothered by dangers in the woods. I want to just go along my merry way and not have to expend a lot of energy on things like dealing with large dangers that I come across.

But there’s also a part of me that gets bored with all that safe stuff, and I need to occupy myself. So I do things like picking up rocks and nuts and old pieces of fruit and tossing them around. I get bored pretty quickly, so I start casting about for new things to learn and do.

And sometimes my casting about uncovers big dangers along the way. Like this diagnostic imaging I’m going to have done — an MRI this weekend, and an EEG in another week or so. Who knows what will be uncovered as a result of that? Sometimes I cast about a bit too freely, and I can end up stirring up things that are unexpected and potentially dangerous… but are actually authentic pieces of my human experience.  (The interesting thing is that the cheetah in my dream actually belonged in the woods — it was its home, and it had just returned to its rightful place.)

Sometimes I cast about too carelessly, too — like tossing a nut at the cheetah. Or, I take a calculated risk and push the limits. In my dream, I didn’t just toss the nut at the cheetah for fun — I did it partly to show it that I meant business, and I wasn’t intimidated by it. I also wanted to scare it away. And it almost worked. But my friend with the weak nerves had to take off running — doing exactly the wrong thing, in that situation. They didn’t have the same information as I, apparently, and they let their fear get the best of them. And then all is lost.

This is pretty significant to me, in my real life experiences with others, because as I move forward, I’m going to have to educate the people around me about my condition(s) — TBI, etc. — so that they learn how to respond appropriately to the situation I’m in. I really don’t need them to freak out and get all worked up over things that A) we don’t know for sure, or B) are big and dangerous but are totally manageable with the right information and the right team of caregivers. I don’t need them to lose it and put themselves — or me — in danger. I need them to be cool, be present, be able to help in a substantive and constructive way.

As I go through this next phase of diagnostic testing — maybe it will show something, maybe it won’t — I need to keep my head on. I need to take care of myself and take things slowly, and not only know why I’m doing what I’m doing, but be clear with others why I’m doing it. Everybody needs to be in the loop, and that includes the parts of myself, too, that are prone to freak out and make poor choices out of fear, rather than knowledge and courage.

But at the same time, I also need to be cognizant of my tendency to court danger, as some kind of reflex, some inner/neuropsychological/biochemical need to sharpen and brighten mylife experience… to wake me up and keep me engaged in life. I need to be aware of my tendency to overstep my bounds, when I’m bored or tired or in need of some stimulation. I need to remember that, when it comes to taking on new challenges, I’m not always as smart as I think I am, and I’m not always up to the task of overcoming what I’m presented with. I can’t afford to forget that I rarely know as much as I need to know — either about myself or the situation I’m presented with. In my dream, I couldn’t chase down the cheetah, once it had hold of my friend. And I can’t always overcome my cognitive and behavioral issues as well as I’d like, once they take hold of me and get a ‘running start’ ahead of my logic and innate abilities.

When (not if) I meet a proverbial big cat on the path through my own “woods,” I need everyone with me — the parts inside and the people outside — to remain calm, make informed choices, and keep their heads. I need to focus on the basics — take care of my body and my mind and my spirit, with adequate rest and activities that feed and sustain me and build up my strength (not to mention common sense). And I need to be aware of my limits and not push them carelessly just because I need a thrill. I need to be aware that I do have a tendency (perhaps thanks to my PTSD) to court danger, just to feel awake and alive. And I need to remember that I’m much more use to my friends and family alive and healthy, than injured or dead. No matter how dangerous a situation may seem, the right information and the intention/willingness to intelligently proceed in the proper way can mean the difference between keeping on my path and making progress, and disaster.

Note to self: Get plenty of rest over the coming days and weeks. You’re going to need it, to do a decent job of handling all this.

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